A group of school nutrition specialists and stakeholders on Wednesday addressed the Senate Agriculture Committee regarding challenges to new school lunch requirements, including planning and food procurement as part of a series of hearings to review and update child nutrition laws.
The group also addressed questions that surfaced earlier this year regarding schools' flexibility with the lunch requirements.
Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., kicked the hearing series off last month with testimony from military representatives and school administrators on quality child nutrition and its impact on national security.
Wednesday, Stabenow focused on streamlining changes to the school lunch program announced four years ago that require providing more beneficial foods like fruits and vegetables and whole grains, among other changes.
Stabenow said recent studies are showing that healthier, improved meal options are being well-received by school children, and efforts like farm-to-school garden initiatives are teaching kids the importance of where their food comes from.
"This is so important when you look at where we are right now, in terms of childhood obesity," she said. "We can only make these important changes if our friends and partners in the food industry, non-profit organizations, agriculture, state and federal agencies, cafeterias and classrooms all work together."
Betti Wiggins of Detroit Public Schools' Office of Food Services said that a partnership with food distributors, farmers and other community leaders provides a meal to 50,000 school children every day.
"Our menus include a healthy array of fresh vegetables and fruits, whole grains, lean proteins, 100% fruit juices and low-fat milk," Wiggins said. "Our work makes a critical positive difference in their lives, their families and our community."
But another panelist, Julia Bauscher, president-elect of the School Nutrition Association, said the changes haven't been without challenges.
Bauscher pointed out that student participation in the National School Lunch Program is has been down in 49 states following 30 years of program growth, and 1.4 million fewer students choose school lunch daily.
Cost is another issue, she said, explaining that the reimbursement rate for schools next year is smaller than the one for the previous year – and a 4 cent increase for breakfast won't cover the increased costs.
"As school nutrition professionals struggle to manage rising costs and waste, what was once a problem for school meal programs is rapidly becoming a problem for school districts. Meal programs are not permitted to carry losses over from one school year to the next, which means that school districts have to pick up the tab," she said.
Finally, Bauscher addressed concerns that the new 100% whole grain requirement could be a hurdle from a regional view. Biscuits, tortillas, bagels and grits are all foods that are preferred regionally, though some of those school districts are having trouble finding suitable whole-grain replacements.
"I think most districts probably wouldn't even have any trouble getting to 90%, if there was an exemption for that culturally significant bread-grain item that [students] like," she said, noting that sometimes, school foodservice directors have trouble accessing required products through their current distribution channels.
USDA in May approved a two-year flexibility for schools to continue serving traditional pastas, not a whole-grain version, on concerns that some schools could not source the latter.
Other witnesses included Scott Clements, Director, Office of Healthy Schools and Child Nutrition, Mississippi Department of Education; Dr. Katie Wilson, Executive Director, National Food Service Management Institute, University of Mississippi; and Phil Muir, President and CEO, Muir Copper Canyon Farms.
Review the webcast of the Challenges of Feeding America's School Children hearing on the Senate Agriculture Committee website.